Inspired by Nao Bustamante's exhibition, Soldadera -- the artist's "speculative reenactment" of women's participation on the front lines of The Mexican Revolution -- Artbound is publishing articles about the exhibition's development, historical contexts engaged by this project, and writing inspired by the work. Soldadera was guest curated for the Vincent Price Art Museum by UC Riverside professor Jennifer Doyle, and is on view from May 16 - August 1, 2015.
My fascination with the fearless soldaderas of the Mexican Revolution began in my teens. Although at that time, I didn't know how vital the participation of women in the war was, I often sang the corrido ballads that honored them. "La Adelita," one of the most famous corridos depicting a woman who participated in the revolution, was my favorite and I knew it by heart. The tone-deaf quality of my singing didn't matter -- as my family could attest -- it was as though I was channeling the courage and soul of La Adelita, the protagonist in the ballad, as I sang it out loud in the desert of Arizona:
En lo alto de la abrupta serranía
acampado se encontraba un regimiento
y una joven que valiente los seguía
locamente enamorada del sargento.
(In the heights of a steep mountainous range
a regiment was encamped
and a young woman bravely follows them
madly in love with the sergeant).
Popular entre la tropa era Adelita
la mujer que el sargento idolatraba
y además de ser valiente era bonita
que hasta el mismo Coronel la respetaba.
(Popular among the troop was Adelita
the woman that the sergeant idolized
and besides being brave she was pretty
that even the Colonel respected her).
Inspired by La Adelita's song, I would buy calendars and posters portraying beautiful soldaderas wearing colorful and revealing clothes. Most captivating to me were the cartridge belts that almost always hung prominently across the soldaderas' chest; some carrying a gun or a Mouser rifle on one shoulder. These depictions influenced my way of looking and thinking about them, imagining their heroism. I wanted to be brave like them. I remember dressing up as a soldaderafor a Halloween party once when I was a college freshman. No one knew who I was dressed as. People thought I was a female bandit. One or two jokingly asked if I was a female "frito bandito." I would proclaim: "No, I am la Adelita." I really was.
In the early 1990s, when I began writing a book on Latina performance ("Latina Performance: Traversing the Stage"), mis amorios with soldaderas was reawakened after reading "Soldadera," a 1938 play by Mexican American author Josefina Niggli. While Niggli's play explores the heroic roles of women soldiers in the revolution, she illustrates the personal and ideological motivations that made them active participants. She represents Adelita, the main character, as a hero who sacrifices her life for the revolutionary cause. For Niggli, Adelita holds the spirit of the revolution. She is not a camp follower who followed her man to war, as the many versions of the Adelita ballad would have us believe. She embodies the revolution. I agree with author Elena Poniatowska who, in the book "Las Soldaderas" (2006), explains that women's participation in the revolution was fundamental, that they were the makers of the Mexican Revolution -- "they kept it alive and fertile, like the earth."
Although famous corridos such as La Adelita, La Valentina and La Cucaracha idealized soldaderas, their experiences were more complex, tragic and profound than the romantic interpretations provided in these ballads. Most of the soldaderas who volunteered to join the front lines of the revolution were mestizas or indigenous women. Some soldaderas were teachers who left the classroom to join or support the troops. They risked their lives and left their families to take part in the revolution. Regardless of their social status, the soldaderas did whatever was needed -- they fought, foraged for food, cooked, nursed the wounded and performed many other essential services. The many roles they performed illustrate how these women were inevitably the ones who played the major role in the revolution. This story is traced by the photographs of the revolution that inspired Bustamante's project. Two images included in Bustamante's work, for example, show large groups of women doing the work of a quartermaster troop: preparing food, and washing clothes.
One of the most startling situations of the revolution, given how we are taught to think of war -- with men on the front, and women at home -- is the fact that sometimes these women went into combat carrying their children on their backs, inside a rebozo, a long woven scarf. In Nao Bustamante's exhibition, a majestic rebozo made of Kevlar is draped high on a wall -- it is scaled up so that it can be wrapped and folded over and over again, to form a perfect shield, large enough to protect a whole family.
The narrative of soldaderas, synonymous but not quite the same as that we encounter in romantic corridos like La Adelita, lives on. The revolutionary character of soldaderas is embodied in Dolores Huerta, Rigoberta Menchú and Gloria Anzaldúa. In Mexico and the U.S. today, the name Adelita has become an inspiration and a symbol for any woman who fights for her rights and social change. She is the symbol foregrounding a model for representing the subject of history and popular consciousness. While she conveys a self-conscious performative space of gender and power relations, her narrative is caught in-between the margins of nationalistic and patriarchal histories, constantly moving back and forth between the two. As a border woman, La Adelita es mi otro yo. She is Nao Bustamante.
La Adelita or the soldaderas who participated in the Mexican Revolution, bear witness to the subject of feminism in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and her revolutionary spirit will remain alive inspiring the imagination, creativity and activism of Mexican women, Chicanas and Latinas. As Nao Bustamante's exhibition demonstrates, the act of revisiting the revolutionary Adelita/soladadera is a reminder that we are trapped in history, and history is trapped in us (to think of James Baldwin in "Notes of a Native Son," 1955). Nao Bustamante's ground-breaking performance art has continually articulated a revolutionary aesthetics that seeks to unveil history and social change. Bustamante re-imagines the narrative of soldaderas and their unbound history in conversation with new audiences and new technologies.
Read more about Nao Bustamante's "Soldadera" project:
Nao Bustamante's Soldaderas, Real and Imagined
Nao Bustamante's exhibition "Soldadera" is a "speculative reenactment" of women's participation in The Mexican Revolution.
Searching for Soldaderas: The Women of the Mexican Revolution in Photographs
What can portraits tell us about soldaderas? Nao Bustamante draws from UC Riverside's archival holdings of photographs of the Mexican Revolution to investigate further.
Soldadera: The Unraveling of a Kevlar Dress
Made out of bulletproof Kevlar, Nao Bustamante's re-imagined Soldadera dresses protect the female body against violence.